How Do You Know When You’re in Labor?

It’s perhaps one of the greatest questions every mom has–how will I know when I am in labor? When I was carrying my first child, I walked around for three weeks at 5 cm dilated, 80% effaced with a bulging bag of waters. If you don’t speak labor and delivery, that means I was facing every day with over half of my labor process already completed. Without a single contraction.   

Despite this, I fretted. Every moment I wondered if the next would bring on a surge of fluids and a baby that delivers in my bathroom floor instead of a hospital room. When I voiced my fears to my good friend–a well-seasoned labor and delivery nurse, she laughed at me.  “The baby won’t fall out on the floor.” she said. And she didn’t. Of course I know that there are probably some of you out there who can dispute this–because your baby probably did deliver unexpectedly.

There certainly are as many different birth stories as there are mothers–because labor and delivery is one of the most individual, personal experiences any mother will ever go through.    So keep that in mind as I attempt to stereotype the process.

How do you know if you are in labor…generally speaking there are a few events that may point to the big day and I just want you to keep in mind that it may not go this way. If you have delivered at least once before, remember that no labor is the same as the one before.

Early signs of labor can include a spectrum of new feelings and symptoms.  A sudden surge of energy that drives you to do laundry, cook, and prepare for baby is sometimes common. We often call this “nesting” as mothers prepare for their new arrival. I used to fold and unfold all the baby clothes–just to feel like I was preparing for something and to try to control the urge.

Other symptoms may include diarrhea, nausea or even vomiting (aside from morning sickness, of course).  Often the baby will “drop” or settle lower into your pelvis.  This drop can help you breathe more easily, but it can also put pressure on your bladder–making you visit the ladies room more than you already were. Like you needed that.

As the day gets closer, some women report the loss of their mucus plug. Gross. I’m a nurse, and I’ll just say that it’s gross. Many women never notice a thing-but don’t be surprised if it happens to you.  I’ll spare you the gory details–but you will know it if it happens. Let’s just leave it at that.

Now, the big issue–when water breaks or you have contractions.  All these recommendations are for full-term moms and babies with no complications. We are assuming that baby is head down, ready to be delivered, and everyone is healthy as far as we know. You should consult your doctor to find out exactly what he/she wants you to do.

If your water breaks go ahead and give your doctor a call–undoubtedly they will advise you to come to the hospital for an evaluation.

If your water does not break, and you begin to have regular contractions at home, stay with them. Don’t run to the hospital as soon as they start.  Begin timing your contractions–from the start of one to the start of the next.  When your contractions are regular, about every 4 to 5 minutes for an hour or two you can call your doctor for advice.  Remember to rest, and drink plenty of fluids during this time.

It’s very important that you don’t get so worked up that you end up exhausted before labor really gets going.  Average labors are 24 hours or more from start to finish. So be patient and take care of yourself so you will still have energy for the birth of your new baby.